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kottke.org posts about TV

The Bob Ross Challenge

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

As a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Micah Sherman and Mark Stetson produced a web series called The Bob Ross Challenge in which 13 comedians attempt to paint along with Bob Ross as he does his thing with the trees and little fluffy clouds. Here’s the first episode, featuring Aparna Nancherla:

I feel like she does a lot better than I would have! The episodes are each less than 2 minutes long…you can burn through the whole season in about 20 minutes. Or if you want to try the challenge yourself, you can watch every episode of The Joy of Painting on YouTube. (via open culture)

Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

In 1998, author and media critic Neil Postman gave a talk he called Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. Here are the five ideas Postman shared that day, which are all still highly relevant today:

1. All technological change is a trade-off. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.

5. Media tend to become mythic. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.

His first idea about technology is perhaps the most apropos to the current moment:

The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.

Think of the automobile, which for all of its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape. Or you might reflect on the paradox of medical technology which brings wondrous cures but is, at the same time, a demonstrable cause of certain diseases and disabilities, and has played a significant role in reducing the diagnostic skills of physicians. It is also well to recall that for all of the intellectual and social benefits provided by the printing press, its costs were equally monumental. The printing press gave the Western world prose, but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication. It gave us inductive science, but it reduced religious sensibility to a form of fanciful superstition. Printing gave us the modern conception of nationhood, but in so doing turned patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. We might even say that the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages introduced the impression that God was an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman — that is to say, printing reduced God to the dimensions of a local potentate.

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently. One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

Idea Number One, then, is that culture always pays a price for technology.

It is nearly impossible to read these paragraphs and not think about how social media (and the internet more generally) has shaped our culture in both good and bad ways…and those who still believe that services like Facebook or Twitter are “unmixed blessings”. The rest of the talk is equally thought-provoking and enlightening.

P.S. Postman made these remarks about 2 weeks after I started publishing kottke.org 20 years ago. At that time, very few people I knew or interacted with online saw anything but the positive aspects of the internet and personal publishing online. Should we have seen the weaponization of the internet coming? Perhaps. But then again, not a lot of people who enjoyed the simple pleasures of Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, and Lassie could have anticipated the government-shaping toxicity of Fox News and cable news in general.

The golden age of TV recaps

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

I have mixed feelings about The Ringer’s enormous ranking of the 100 best TV shows of the century (so far), but I’ve enjoyed some of the accompanying material. In particular, I like Alison Herman’s essay on the rise, fall, and metastasis of TV recap culture in the late 90s and early 2000s. Regardless of whether you believe the premise that time was a golden age of television, it was almost certainly the golden age of TV recaps.

Part of the reason now-classic episodes like Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” or The Sopranos’ finale are remembered as such is because recappers were there to register their amazement and enumerate the reasons why those hours had the power to shock and surprise. “Sopranos and Mad Men are two of the best shows to write recaps of, because they’re so dense and laden with meaning and subtext and symbolism,” [Alan] Sepinwall explains. “You get to really dive in deep with, Well, what does all that mean? What was the show trying to say?” This would prove a common theme of the rise of recapping: More was being written about TV because, in many critics’ minds, there was more to write about. As for viewers, they got the message that neither TV criticism nor TV itself was a one-way street. Television didn’t have to be talked about as an investment to be made or checked in on, but as it was actually experienced: as a regular, consistent part of our lives.

Herman’s genealogy hits some of the usual suspects (Television Without Pity, The Onion’s AV Club, Gossip Girl) while also giving time to some lesser-traveled corners of the recaposphere, like Mad Style, the Mad Men fashion recap series that helped spawn similar specialist takes on other costume-heavy shows.

But the arc in general is pretty familiar: a few pioneers (both TV shows and the people who recap them) help establish the parameters of style, before a glut of content and commentary made the form less coherent and universal. Streaming and social led to a deemphasis of the episode as a unit and the recapper as an authority. Production, distribution, and reception all fundamentally changed. (So did the blogosphere and the broader cultural media universe, which maybe gets shortchanged some in Herman’s account.)

And maybe the Recap Age was all a little too ponderous and self-serious, especially when it came to “jokes.” Some of it doesn’t age well. But it’s a time when a lot of exciting things were happening, not least on the television set, and it’s one I still miss.

My media diet for early Summer 2018, special roadtrip edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”,1 so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the two months or so. My summer has been a little slow, media-wise…the World Cup, my roadtrip, and time spent enjoying the outdoors have conspired to limit my reading and watching time. This is not a bad thing. I’m still working my way through The Odyssey w/ the kids (now on hold b/c they’re at camp) and David Christian’s Origin Story. I wanted to get way more reading done this summer than I have…maybe I can pick up the pace in August. (Ignore the letter grades. Or don’t!)

Solo: A Star Wars Story. The movie was fine, but I liked the branding for it more. I would watch an Enfys Nest movie though. (B)

The Dave Chang Show w/ Helen Rosner. Chang is an engaging interviewer, and Rosner is a great guest. (B+)

RBG. What an extraordinary person. (B+)

American Innovations. Engaging and informative podcast hosted by Steven Johnson. (B)

Ocean’s 8. Pretty good but would have benefitted from a slightly more clever plot and direction by Soderbergh. (B+)

ye. As I’ve heard from more than one person: I hate that I like this album. (B+)

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This book contains a valuable central message and several fascinating insights but the constant ad hominems, irrelevant tangents, stereotyping, and general antagonistic tone of the writing makes for tough reading. I wish Taleb were a more generous writer. (B)

Incredibles 2. A solid sequel. Kids gave it two thumbs up. (A-)

Everything is Love. Ok, “The Carters”, but they smartly made this a Beyoncé album feat. Jay-Z. This has been on heavy rotation in my car. (A-)

The Disaster Artist. Gave up on this about 30 minutes in…zero interest. (-)

Justice League. Not as terrible as I was led to believe. But maybe DC can trade Wonder Woman to Marvel? (C+)

Caliphate. Finished this…what a great and important series. I know a lot of people think Serial is the podcast gold standard, but this was better and more significant. (A)

Seabiscuit. This one always gets me right in the feels. (B+)

Scorpion. Kanye’s latest album is 23 minutes long while Drake went for a full 90 minutes. I know there’s some controversy about it, but it was genuinely great hearing new music from Michael Jackson. (B)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The remainder of the second season was brutal. (A-)

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin. An epic story of adventure and discovery, expertly told. (A)

Sharp Objects. This one is a slow burn, but I will watch Amy Adams in anything…she is mesmerizing. (B+)

Star Trek: Voyager. Still making progress on this…I’m about 70% of the way through. It’s better in the middle seasons than a lot of people give it credit for. (B)

Solo roadtrips. The world is a fascinating place…get out and explore it if you can. (A+)

Pacific Rim Uprising. They could have done more with this, but they didn’t. They really didn’t. (C+)

The 2018 FIFA World Cup. I missed most of the knockout stage because I was traveling, but I still loved every minute of this World Cup. (A-)

Jaws. My first time seeing it. (Yes, yes, I know.) Amazing to see so many of Spielberg’s filmmaking techniques on display so early in his career. (A-)

Westworld. This show asks, over and over again, “Is any of this real?” The result is a complete inability on my part to suspend my disbelief…I’m always very aware that what I’m watching is fake. (C-)

Hot Fuzz. Will watch this anytime. (A-)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

  1. You probably dislike the use of the word “consume” when it comes to media. So do I. It conjures up an image of mindlessly feeding on things that talented and artistic people have worked hard on. (See also “media diet”.) But different forms of work have different verbs associated with them: TV shows & movies are watched, books are read, podcasts are listened to, theme parks are experienced. What one word works for all of those? Enjoyed? I surely don’t enjoy all the stuff I watch/listen to/watch/experience (see!!). Experienced? That suggests a passiveness that doesn’t apply to how I watch/read things. “Consumed” works, for better or worse. Does anyone have a better suggestion? I am ready to consume it…

Live TV coverage of the Apollo 11 landing and Moon walk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2018

Apollo 11 TV Coverage

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and said:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

A little more than 8 years later, it was done. On July 20, 1969, 49 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, took a walk, and returned safely to Earth a few days later. And the whole thing was broadcast live on television screens around the world.

For the 40th anniversary of the landing in 2009, I put together a page where you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk, synced to the present-day time. Just open this page in your browser and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here’s the schedule (all times EDT):

4:10:30 pm: Moon landing broadcast starts
4:17:40 pm: Lunar module lands on the Moon

4:20:15 pm: Break in coverage

10:51:27 pm: Moon walk broadcast starts
10:56:15 pm: First step on Moon
11:51:30 pm: Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew
12:00:30 am: Broadcast end (on July 21)

You can add these yearly recurring events to your calendar: Moon landing & Moon walk.

Here’s what I wrote when I launched the project, which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done online:

If you’ve never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it. I’ve watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I’m struck by two things: 1) how it’s almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Andrew Chaikin’s account of the Apollo program, A Man on the Moon, and the chapter about Apollo 11’s Moon landing was riveting.1 I’ve watched the TV footage & listened to the recordings dozens of times and I was still on the edge of my seat, sweating the landing alongside Armstrong and Aldrin. And sweating they were…at least Armstrong was. Take a look at his heart rate during the landing; it peaked at 150 beats per minute at landing (note: the “1000 ft altitude” is mislabeled, it should be “100 ft”):

Neil Armstrong's heart rate during the Apollo 11 Moon landing

For reference, Armstrong’s resting heart rate was around 60 bpm. There are a couple of other interesting things about this chart. The first is the two minutes of missing data starting around 102:36. They were supposed to be 10 minutes from landing on the Moon and instead their link to Mission Control in Houston kept cutting out. Then there were the intermittent 1201 and 1202 program alarms, which neither the LM crew nor Houston had encountered in any of the training simulations. At the sign of the first alarm at 102:38:26, Armstrong’s heart rate actually appears to drop. And then, as the alarms continue throughout the sequence along with Houston’s assurances that the alarm is nothing to worry about, Armstrong’s heart rate stays steady.

Right around the 2000 feet mark, Armstrong realizes that he needs to maneuver around a crater and some rocks on the surface to reach a flat landing spot and his heart rate steadily rises until it plateaus at the landing. At the time, he thought he’d landed with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining. That Neil Armstrong was able to keep his cool with unknown alarms going off while avoiding craters and boulders with very little fuel remaining and his heart rate spiking while skimming over the surface OF THE FREAKING MOON doing something no one had ever done before is one of the most totally cold-blooded & badass things anyone has ever done. Damn, I get goosebumps just reading about it!

Update: The landing broadcast just aired and I wanted to explain a little about what you saw (you can relive it here).

The shots of the Moon you see during the landing broadcast are animations…there is obviously no camera on the Moon watching the LM descend to the surface. There was a camera recording the landing from the LM but that footage was not released until later. This is in contrast to the footage you’ll see later on the Moon walk broadcast…that footage was piped in live to TV screens all over the world as it happened.

The radio voices you hear are mostly Mission Control in Houston (specifically Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke, who acted as the spacecraft communicator for this mission) and Buzz Aldrin, whose job during the landing was to keep an eye on the LM’s altitude and speed — you can hear him calling it out, “3 1/2 down, 220 feet, 13 forward.” Armstrong doesn’t say a whole lot…he’s busy flying and furiously searching for a suitable landing site. But it’s Armstrong that says after they land, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”. Note the change in call sign from “Eagle” to “Tranquility Base”. :)

Two things to listen for on the broadcast: the 1201/1202 program alarms I mentioned above and two quick callouts by Charlie Duke about the remaining fuel towards the end: “60 seconds” and “30 seconds”. Armstrong is taking all this information in through his earpiece — the 1202s, the altitude and speed from Aldrin, and the remaining fuel — and using it to figure out where to land.

The CBS animation shows the fake LM landing on the fake Moon before the actual landing — when Buzz says “contact light” and then “engine stop”. The animation was based on the scheduled landing time and evidently couldn’t be adjusted. The scheduled time was overshot because of the crater and boulders situation mentioned above.

Cronkite was joined on the program by former astronaut Wally Schirra. When Armstrong signaled they’d landed, Schirra can be seen dabbing his eyes and Cronkite looks a little misty as well as he rubs his hands together.

  1. The book is read by Bronson Pinchot, who played Balki Bartokomous on the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers. He is a fantastic audiobook narrator.

Trump’s unprecedented relationship with Fox News

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 09, 2018

Brian Stelter is known for media scoops, but sometimes, he can bring the insight too. On CNN and in his nightly newsletter, he briefly outlines what I think anyone has to agree is an unusual symbiosis of the Presidency and a single news outlet, Fox News. (Trump hiring Fox News’s Bill Shine to run his communications shop is just one symptom of the bigger entanglement.)

— No president has ever endorsed a network to this degree before: Promoting it, telling people when and where to tune in, while trashing all of its rivals…

— And no network has ever propped up a president quite like this before…

— The back-scratching benefits both sides. Trump benefits from the friendly segments and softball Q’s. Fox benefits from Trump’s preferential treatment and constant promos…

— The beating heart of this relationship is Sean Hannity, who reportedly golfed with Trump on Sunday. Hannity is an adviser, a booster, an attack dog, a friend. No TV host has ever had this kind of alliance with a US president…

— And no president has never treated a TV channel like it’s an intelligence agency the way Trump treats Fox…

My point: This is new. And weird. And we shouldn’t get used to it. There’s been almost a merger between a culture war TV station and a culture war president. In the essay, I asked, rhetorically, “What would Trump do without Fox?”

Is this the weirdest thing about the Trump presidency, or the most dangerous? Probably not. But it’s one of the legs that props up all the other legs. And it’s definitely weird, and I’d argue, dangerous.

Iceland’s goalkeeper directed a TV commercial for the World Cup

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2018

The Iceland men’s soccer team is nearly impossible not to root for in this World Cup. They are the smallest nation by population ever to qualify for a World Cup. Their coach is a dentist and still maintains his hometown dental practice. The Skol chant done by the team’s fans is a great addition to the collection of international soccer chants & songs. All great underdog stuff.

Adding to that, their goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldórsson is a former film director who, until four years ago, pursued soccer as a second job. In anticipation for the World Cup, Halldórsson stepped back into his old job to direct a commercial for Coca-Cola featuring the Icelandic men’s national team and the Skol chant.

Pretty good for a keeper. Is this the best commercial ever made by someone who has also kept clean sheets against both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

The trailer for a HBO documentary on Robin Williams

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2018

In mid July, HBO will premiere a 2-hour documentary about Robin Williams called, cheekily, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. Here’s the trailer:

The film explores his extraordinary life and career, revealing what drove him to give voice to the characters in his mind. With previously unheard and unseen glimpses into his creative process through interviews with Williams, as well as home movies and onstage footage, this insightful tribute features in-depth interviews with those who knew and loved him, including Billy Crystal, Eric Idle, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman, Steve Martin, Pam Dawber and his son, Zak Williams.

Freddish, the special language Mister Rogers used when talking to children

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2018

Maxwell King, the former director of the Fred Rogers Center and author of the forthcoming book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, shared an excerpt of the book with The Atlantic about how much attention Rogers paid to how children would hear the language on the show. For instance, he changed the lyrics on Friday’s installment of the “Tomorrow” song he sang at the end of each show to reflect that the show didn’t air on Saturdays.

Rogers was so meticulous in his process for translating ideas so they could be easily understood by children that a pair of writers on the show came up with a nine-step process that he used to translate from normal English into “Freddish”, the special language he used when speaking to children.

1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.

2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.

3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, Ask your parents where it is safe to play.

4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.

5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.

6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.

7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.

8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.

9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

These are boss-level communication skills. Steps 6 & 8 are particularly thoughtful. Using language like “your favorite grown-ups” instead of “your parents” is often decried these days as politically correct nonsense but Rogers knew the power of caring language to include as many people as possible in the conversation.1

You can also see Rogers’ care in how he went back and fixed problematic language in old shows.

But as the years would go on, he would find things that had happened in old episodes that didn’t feel current, where maybe he used a pronoun “he” instead of “they” — or he met a woman and presumed that she was a housewife. So he would put on the same clothes and go back and shoot inserts and fix old episodes so that they felt as current as possible, so that he could stand by them 100 percent.

Fred Rogers understood more than anyone that paying attention and sweating the details is a form of love. It was never enough for him to let you know that he loved you. He made sure to tell you that he loved you “just the way you are” and that made all the difference.

  1. As opposed to those who, for instance, refuse to use people’s preferred pronouns or can’t bring themselves to use “they/their” instead of “he/his” in writing. Those refusals are also an exercise of power, against individuals or marginalized groups, based on fear, uncertainty, and hate.

A supercut of unintentional ASMR moments from movies and TV shows

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2018

For these two videos, FunWithGuru collected scenes from movies & TV that can trigger ASMR. He featured movies like Phantom Thread (rustling cloth) and Amelie (whispering) as well as well as calmer moments from more unlikely fare like Inglourious Basterds, Edward Scissorhands, and The Office. The clips show ASMR staples like calm talking, people quietly performing tasks, whispering, hair brushing, pouring water, and rustling paper.

The Americans is over, The Americans was great.

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2018

Given the recent Netflix-driven Cambrian explosion in television shows, there is no Best Show On TV™ anymore. But over the past few years, even with so many other excellent shows to choose from, The Americans had a legitimate claim to that title. In his review of last night’s final show (spoilers ahoy!), Alan Sepinwall nails what made the show so compelling to me:

Priority-wise, The Americans has always been a show about marriage that used the spycraft to heighten the stakes, rather than an espionage drama that used the family material to make Philip and Elizabeth more relatable. Its chief interest was in the compromises necessary to make any long-term relationship work, about the disagreements every pair of spouses will have about career and parenting and everything else. The assassinations, honeypots, and Stan’s investigations provided narrative propulsion and suspense, and Soviet ideology was at the heart of every choice Elizabeth made, particularly when it came to Paige, but all of that was thematically secondary to husband/wife and parent/child issues.

As I noted in my recent media diet post, their final season has been very strong, and the series finale held true to the show’s focus on family in an unexpectedly quiet and powerful way.

Could the series have ended with some combination of Jenningses killed or behind bars for life? Certainly, and it wouldn’t have rang false if it had happened. But the fact that the finale’s tragedies are all small-scale and family-related — Elizabeth and Philip abandon one child and are abandoned by the other, Stan learns that his best friend has been betraying him for years, and that his wife may be betraying him in the same way — feels in keeping with all that we’ve seen before.

I loved the finale — Stan’s devastation in particular ruined me…I’m going to be thinking about that for a long while — and Sepinwall’s recap is typically great. He also interviewed the show’s creators about the episode, who maddeningly (but correctly, I grudgingly have to admit) won’t spill the beans on what happens to any of the characters after the events of the show. Other recaps: NY Times, Vulture, AV Club.

If you want to catch up, all six seasons of The Americans are available on Amazon (1-5 are Prime, 6 isn’t yet).

My media diet for Spring 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I went to Florida with my kids and we did the Harry Potter thing at Universal & visited the Space Coast. I stopped watching Mr. Robot s03 after two episodes. Still making my way through Star Trek: Voyager when I want something uncomplicated to watch in the evening. (Ignore the letter grades, they suck.)

The Americans. This season, the show’s last, has been fantastic. It’s idiotic to say The Americans is the best show on TV with like 50,000 shows on Netflix alone, but after five strong seasons and this finish, they’ve earned it. (A)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast. I wrote an appreciation of this a few weeks ago. (A-)

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. I love Andrew’s Instagram feed but even so, her book surprised me with timeless and universal themes woven into her life story. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season of this show was great and season two picks up right where it left off. I binged the first six episodes of this across two nights and came away shellshocked. (A)

Wild Wild Country. Not sure why anyone followed the Bhagwan anywhere, but Sheela on the other hand… There were several interesting threads in this documentary that didn’t quite get pulled together in the final episode. (B+)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. The tickets for this were incredibly expensive and worth every damn penny. This was very nearly a religious experience. (A+)

Downsizing. I wanted more from this about the implications of the evolution of humans into nano sapiens. Still, better than many critics & audiences suggested. (B)

Brain It On. I saw my daughter playing this physics puzzler on her iPad and basically grabbed it away from her and played for 24 straight hours. (A-)

Westworld. Watching this every week feels like a chore. Even though the safeties are off, everything that happens in the parks feels consequence-free. I don’t care about the robots. Should I? (C+)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop-motion animation might be Anderson’s natural medium because he can shoot everything *exactly* like he wants. (A-)

Isle of Dogs. Loved this. The style of it made me want to design something amazing. I could have watched the sushi-making scene for like 15 more minutes. (A)

On Margins - The Making of Rebel Girls. Craig Mod talks to co-creator Elena Favilli about how Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls came about and came to be so successful. (B+)

L’Express. A classic Montreal restaurant. Best steak frites I’ve had in a long while. (A-)

Babylon Berlin. Super stylish. The dance scene in the second episode is amazing. The best things about the show are the music and the world-building in the first few episodes. (B+)

Death of Stalin. I love that people still make films like this. Most of the audience I saw this with had no idea what to make of it or why a few people were laughing so hard at some parts. (B+)

Kennedy Space Center. The solar eclipse last summer awakened the space/astronomy nerd in me, so this visit was incredible. We saw a Space Shuttle, a Saturn V rocket, the VAB, and a whole mess of other great things. Thinking of going back for their Astronaut Training Experience. (A+)

Avengers: Infinity War. The ending of this left me stunned…it broke the fourth wall in a unique way. (B+)

A Quiet Place. This entire movie is a metaphor for trying to keep small children quiet on a long plane flight. (B)

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. This book demonstrates that telling the story of technology, programming, and the internet mainly through the many women who helped build it all is just as plausible and truthful as telling the traditionally women-free tale we’ve typically been exposed to. (B+)

Songs of the Years, 1925-2018. So glad this playlist is back in my life. (A-)

The Avengers. I’d forgotten where all the Infinity Stones came from, so I’ve gone back and watched this, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first Thor movie. Fascinating to see the changes in the filmmaking and pacing. If Infinity War had been made with the pace of Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh!), it would have been 5 hours long. (B+)

Caliphate. Gripping and disturbing and very nearly a must-listen. But I keep showing up places shellshocked after listening to it in the car. (A)

AWB OneSky Reflector Telescope. When I looked through this for the first time at the Moon, my first thought was “WHOA”. My second was “I should have bought a more powerful telescope”. Luckily I can just buy more lenses for it… (A)

I’ve been doing this for more than a year now! Past installments of my media diet can be found here.

The arrested development of the Arrested Development cast

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

Sopan Deb recently sat down with some of the cast of Arrested Development (Jeffrey Tambor, Tony Hale, Jason Bateman, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, Will Arnett, and David Cross) for an interview about the show’s upcoming new season. Deb asked the group about the allegations against Tambor related to his work on Transparent, and Walter (who plays Lucille Bluth on the show) begins to cry as the men in the room, particularly Bateman, offer explanations for Tambor’s on-set verbal abuse of her.

BATEMAN: Again, not to belittle it or excuse it or anything, but in the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, “difficult.” And when you’re in a privileged position to hire people, or have an influence in who does get hired, you make phone calls. And you say, “Hey, so I’ve heard X about person Y, tell me about that.” And what you learn is context. And you learn about character and you learn about work habits, work ethics, and you start to understand. Because it’s a very amorphous process, this sort of [expletive] that we do, you know, making up fake life. It’s a weird thing, and it is a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes.

SHAWKAT: But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently.

WALTER [THROUGH TEARS]: Let me just say one thing that I just realized in this conversation. I have to let go of being angry at him. He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go. [Turns to Tambor.] And I have to give you a chance to, you know, for us to be friends again.

TAMBOR: Absolutely.

WALTER: But it’s hard because honestly — Jason says this happens all the time. In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set. And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now. I just let it go right here, for The New York Times.

Walter stated that Tambor apologized, but none of the men in the room said anything as simple as “that was inappropriate” or “that shouldn’t have happened to you”, even as they circle the wagons for Tambor. Although Bateman later apologized on Twitter for mansplaining, it seems like they haven’t really been listening to their colleagues and peers over the past several months about what it might be like being a women on the set of one of these shows.

Muppet outtakes are hilarious

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

This is a blooper reel from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a 1977 TV special produced by The Jim Henson Company. Take after take, they’re trying to roll a tiny drum out of a doorway in a very specific way and the Muppet characters get increasingly frustrated and amusing as it goes along. If the voice of the Ma character sounds familiar, that’s Frank Oz, who is also the voice of Yoda, Grover, and Bert from Sesame Street.

The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2018

A 10-part Netflix/ESPN documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls? Sure, I will watch the hell out of that. The Bulls were my team1 when I was a kid and for me, Jordan is still the greatest basketball player of all time. Ok, I am admittedly biased and you could probably talk me into Bill Russell (all those championships), Kareem (stats, championships, longevity), or more recently, Tim Duncan (championships, longevity, consistency)…they were certainly all far more decent people than Jordan, an ultra-competitive dick, was.

But you can get out of here with your LeBrons and Steph Currys…until they start stringing together back-to-back-to-back championships, they are not in the conversation. Jordan had the stats and the championships; the Bulls were a proper dynasty. I’ll put it this way: for eight straight years in the NBA, the most intensely competitive sports league in the US, when Michael Jordan played a full season (in six of those years), his team won the NBA championship. They had it on lock. When he didn’t, they didn’t. Case closed.

(Also, I don’t want to tell the filmmakers their business, but if one of these episodes isn’t just 50 straight minutes of Jordan highlights, they’re cheating the American public.)

  1. I lived in Wisconsin, so the Bucks really should have been my team (this was pre-Timberwolves). But we got WGN on cable, so the Bulls were on TV all the time and the Bucks weren’t. Plus, Jordan was electrifying to watch and Dale Ellis wasn’t. WGN availability of games is also why I was a Cubs fan as a kid instead of a Brewers or Twins fan. It’s tough to be a fan when you can’t watch the team.

A fake Modigliani, the Kardashians, and the American Dream

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

I’ve never watched a single second of the reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians but I found Rachel Tashjian’s When a Modigliani Almost Changed the Kardashians’ Lives to be an engaging read.

Suddenly, Scott’s doubts seem to diminish. Kourtney finds him a few days later examining carpet samples and asks if they’re for his new home. He delivers a maxim we should all live by: “I look at carpet only for aviation and yachts.” When Kourtney asks why he’s “suddenly into this,” he begins screaming: “I’VE ALWAYS BEEN INTO BEING ULTRA RICH! I JUST NEVER BELIEVED IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN THE WAY IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN!”

The tension builds to obscene absurdism. The idea that the Kardashians — who live in Calabasas, a city with a median income of $119,624, and who film each scene sprawled on pristine white couches in endless living rooms, and snacking off giant marble countertops in family room-sized kitchens — are dreaming about getting rich is almost too…rich. But then, this is the arc of American promise, regardless of how much money you have: this idea that something everyone else thinks is worthless or pointless is actually going to make you rich and famous is what has fueled 22 seasons of Antiques Roadshow, is perhaps the foundation of Southern Gothic literature, and is what makes people believe in the American dream to begin with.

The Great American Read: a list of America’s 100 best-loved novels

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2018

The Great American Read is an upcoming eight-part PBS series about books and reading. The show is built around a national survey that asked a group of “demographically and statistically representative” Americans what their most-loved English language work of fiction was. Here’s the trailer:

The full list of available books is on the web site. Along with the usual suspects of Great Literature™ (The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Little Women) and beloved children’s classics (the Harry Potter series, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web), there are some interesting and not-so-surprising choices as well: The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, the Fifty Shades of Grey series, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Another Country by James Baldwin.

The best title sequences of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2018

I know it’s almost May of 2018, but I missed Art of the Title’s Top 10 Title Sequences of 2017 when it came out back in January, so here you go. Come on, it ain’t so bad…nothing in the preceding four months has made these sequences any worse. For example, the opening credits for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are still delightful:

Or the spooky credits for Mindhunter, which remind me of the opening titles for Six Feet Under & Se7en and the rolling tape footage used extensively in The Fog of War.

The Westworld season two soundtrack covers Kanye & Nirvana

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of HBO’s Westworld is the music, particularly the acoustic covers of modern rock and pop songs, many of which sound like they could be coming from a player piano in the show’s Old West saloon. The first season’s soundtrack, composed by Ramin Djawadi, featured covers of songs by Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, and the Rolling Stones. The second season is starting in just a couple of weeks, but they’ve already released two new covers from this season’s soundtrack: Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana and Kanye West’s Runaway.

Djawadi, perhaps best known as the composer of the Game of Thrones theme song, spoke to Pitchfork about the rationale behind the cover songs:

What I love about that is it just comes out of nowhere and you don’t expect it at all. You see the settings and the way people are dressed and even though you know it’s robots and it’s all made to be modern entertainment, you would think the people in control would make everything authentic, including whatever is played on that player piano. It would be from that time period. And when it’s not, it’s that subtle reminder that, ‘Wait, there is something not right. This is not real.’ It’s just such a powerful tool that only music can do.

The full spoilers for season two of Westworld

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2018

Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan are the creators and producers of HBO’s Westworld. Last night, they released a 25-minute-long video on YouTube that they say contains the full spoilers for season two of the show. (Update: it’s a rickroll. Har har.)

Nolan shared the rationale for the unusual move on Reddit (which I’ve read three times and still don’t understand from a logic perspective):

I greatly enjoyed watching the friendly folks at this subreddit guess the twists and turns of the season.

It creates a larger problem for us, though, in terms of the way your guesswork is reported online. ‘Theories’ can actually be spoilers, and the line between the two is confusing. It’s something we’ve been thinking about since last season. The fans of Game of Thrones, for instance, rallied around and protected the secrets of the narrative in part because they already knew those secrets (through season 5).

We thought about this long and hard, and came to a difficult (and potentially highly controversial) decision. If you guys agree, we’re going to post a video that lays out the plot (and twists and turns) of season 2. Everything. The whole sordid thing. Up front. That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community, and help to distinguish between what’s ‘theory’ and what’s spoiler.

I have not watched it and won’t1 but from the comments in the thread (spoilers!), it appears legit. Orrrrr, it’s some elaborate troll by Nolan et al. to flood the zone with fake spoilers, to misdirect hardcore fans. Or maybe since Westworld contains many levels of fakes and artifice, I wonder if they’re doing this as part of an ARG, creating another layer of trickery and misdirection for the show? I guess we’ll see!

Update: LOL, I have been duped. SPOILERS: that video is mostly of a dog in front of a piano with the Westworld theme playing. And an olde tyme rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up. Hanging my head in deep shame.

I still believe that it would be cool if the show could somehow work in a release of faux spoilers into the main plot of the show. That would be impressive, more so than another rickroll.

  1. I am not a personal fan of spoilers; I prefer to watch/read/listen to things with as little foreknowledge as possible. But I also feel that good literature and films and TV shows are mostly unspoilable. If the plot is the only thing your book or movie has going for it, it’s probably not very good in the first place. Knowing what Rosebud is or the endings of various Hitchcock thrillers does not take anything away from the mastery of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or Rear Window.

Black Panther’s T’Challa competes on SNL’s Black Jeopardy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

Chadwick Boseman, who portrays T’Challa in Black Panther, hosted Saturday Night Live over the weekend, appearing in character on Black Jeopardy. Let’s just say T’Challa finds it challenging to understand the cultural references and idioms of contemporary American Black English but eventually gets the hang of it. I laughed solidly, and at times uncomfortably, through the entire thing.

See also Tom Hanks’ appearance on Black Jeopardy, which Jamelle Bouie highlighted as a particularly astute piece of American political analysis.

Music from Babylon Berlin

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

I’ve been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix for the past week and the scene that got me hooked was the time-bending dance number in the second episode, one of the most energetic, vibrant, and sexy scenes I’ve seen onscreen in a long time. The song in the scene, Zu Asche, Zu Staub, is a 20s/30s swing number put through a modern filter of EDM. You can hear it on the show’s soundtrack (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon):

The original music for the show was composed by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer, who have worked together since Tykwer’s breakout Run, Lola, Run and have done the music for Cloud Atlas, Sense8, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

My recent media diet for March-ish 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I was out of town for a few days so there are more books on here than usual. I’m trying to keep it up…reading right now but too early to call: Broad Band, Am I There Yet?, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. Oh and I’m really glad The Americans is back on, even though it’s the final season. (As I’ve said before, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades. They are subjective and frequently wrong.)

Star Trek Voyager. Not in the same league as Next Generation, but it hums along nicely after they get going. (B)

Mr. Robot. I watched the first episode of season three and then got distracted by other things. Anybody watch the whole season? Is it worth circling back? (TBD)

Annihilation. I enjoyed this more than many people I know, but not as much as Matt Zoller Seitz. Eager to watch it again since reading the book (see below). (B+)

Lincoln. I love this movie. One of Spielberg’s best. (A)

Ugly Delicious. I wanted to hate this, but it’s really interesting and David Chang wears you down with his, well, I wouldn’t call it charm exactly. The episode that really hooked me was the Thanksgiving one, when he’s wandering around a massive supermarket with his mom, who’s mockingly calling him “David Chang” (you can almost hear the appended ™ in her voice) and then refers to him as the “Baby King”. Also, for a chef, Chang is weirdly incurious about food but harangues people for not appreciating kimchi. I really should write a longer post about this… (A-)

Murder on the Orient Express. Better than I had heard, if you choose to embrace its slight campiness. I really enjoyed Branagh’s Poirot. (B+)

Geostorm. I love disaster movies like this, but I kept checking my phone during this one and a day or two later I couldn’t have told you a single plot point. That will not stop me from watching it again because (see first sentence). (C)

Sunsets. I recommend them, particularly on the beach. (A)

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. “I recommend that you read The Wizard and the Prophet”. (A)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Great book, deserving of all its accolades. (A-)

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is likely an unpopular opinion, but I liked the movie more. Upon finishing, I was not inclined to read the sequels. (B)

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. As I mentioned here, I’m reading this aloud to my kids, which feels a little like a time machine trip back to antiquity. (A)

An Incomplete History of Protest. Inspiring collection of objects related to the protests of everything from the AIDS crisis to Vietnam. Fascinating to see how the disenfranchised leveraged art and design to counter their neglect by the powerful. (A-)

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Fun to see American Gothic up close, but I was more impressed by some of Wood’s other work, particularly his illustration-like landscapes. I showed the kids a photo I had taken of one of the paintings and Ollie said, “that looks like a 3D rendering!” (B+)

Stephen Shore at MoMA. I’d label this a “must see” if you’re into photography at all. Shore’s shape-shifting career is inspiring. (A-)

Red Sparrow. I was texting with a friend about how cool it would be if J. Law’s character in Red Sparrow was Paige Jennings from The Americans all grown up, but the timelines don’t match up. (B-)

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. I don’t play a lot of board games so maybe this is a common thing now, but I really like how all the players have to work together against the game to win. But once you get past the first couple of decks, the games take *forever*. (B+)

The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore will always be my sentimental Wes Anderson fave, but Tenenbaums is right up there. (A)

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I have been listening to the audiobook version while in the car, and Wallace’s reading of the first story, Big Red Son (about an adult video awards show), made me laugh so hard that I had to pull of the road at one point. (A)

Logan Lucky. Much better on the second watch. I don’t know why I didn’t appreciate it the first time around…I love Soderbergh and this is basically Ocean’s 7/11. (A-)

Moon. I saw this when it originally came out but didn’t like it as much the second time around. Great soundtrack though. (B+)

Sleep. An 8-hour-long album designed to be played while you sleep. I listened to the entire album while working, and it’s pretty good for that purpose as well. (A-)

Simon and the Whale. Wonderful room and service. Really good cocktails. I know the kitchen crew and they still blew me away with the food. (A)

Girls Trip. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie since I don’t know when. Bridesmaids maybe? Can’t wait to watch this again in a few months. (A-)

Ready Player One. I very much enjoyed watching this movie. Spielberg must have had fun going back through the 80s pop culture he had a large part in shaping. (A-)

Electricity. I’m writing this not from my usual home office but from the lobby of the local diner/movie theater. We had a wind storm last night, which knocked the power out at my house. That means no heat, no water, no wifi, and very poor cell reception. And a tree came down across the road I live on, so I was “stranded” for a few hours this morning until someone showed up with a chainsaw. I unreservedly recommend electricity (and civilization more generally). (A+)

Lessons from the Screenplay: the influences and cleverness of Black Mirror

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2018

In this video, Lessons from the Screenplay examines what makes one of the best episodes of Black Mirror, USS Callister, so effective and entertaining.

The USS Callister episode of Black Mirror is a bit of an anomaly amongst the nineteen episodes of the series. It cleverly introduces the antagonist in an unconventional way, brings the premise of an old Twilight Zone episode into the near future, and manages to constantly be doing multiple things at once.

His second example of how the show does multiple things at once, which occurs right at the end of the episode, is excellent.

Poetry in America series on PBS

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

Poetry in America is an upcoming 12-part series exploring poetry on a variety of topics. Each episode features the discussion of a single poem — “I cannot dance upon my toes” by Emily Dickinson, “Skyscraper” by Carl Sandburg, “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas — with a collection of notable people — Samantha Power, Shaquille O’Neal, E.O. Wilson, Yo Yo Ma, Bill Clinton. The first episode airs this week but is already available on Amazon.

Fake laughs! The invention of the laugh track.

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2018

Encyclopedia Of Misinformation

On Tuesday, my friend Rex Sorgatz came out with the very timely book, The Encyclopedia of Misinformation, the full subtitle of which is “A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Impostors, Illusions, Confabulations, Skullduggery, Frauds, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flimflam, Pranks, Hornswoggle, Conspiracies & Miscellaneous Fakery”. Today I’m happy to present an excerpt about the genesis and use of the laugh track on television. [The video insert on how the laff box worked is mine.] -jason

No technique in television production has been more maligned than the laugh track, yet it somehow perseveres through decades of ridicule.

It all started innocently, as a quick hack to solve a technical problem. Charley Douglass, a sound engineer at CBS in the early ’50s, was annoyed at studio audiences who inconveniently laughed at the wrong moments. Sometimes they chuckled too long at unfunny bits; other times, they refused to bellow with sufficient gusto. To evenly redistribute the laughter, Douglass invented a contraption that looked like a steampunk organ collided with a cyberpunk adding machine, connected on the back end to magnetic tapes with recorded laughter. By pressing buttons on the laff box (that’s actually what he called it), an orchestrator could punch up guffaws, chortles, and giggles on demand. The magical machine also acted as a sort of demographic keyboard, with inputs for specific genders, ages, and ethnicities, plus a foot pedal that controlled the duration of each laugh. One keystroke might simulate frothy housewife giggle; another, guy who missed joke but laughs anyway. Keys could be combined into melodic chords of laughter, bringing down the house in a crescendo of hilarity.

The gizmo was a success, smoothing out the aural wrinkles in programs like The Abbott and Costello Show and I Love Lucy. It was a necessary evil of this nascent era, when television was rapidly changing from live broadcast to taped recordings. Audiences were still growing accustomed to the big square tube in their living rooms, and the laugh track helped ease the transition by simulating an intimate theater experience at home. You knew when to laugh because they told you when to laugh.

Naturally, this quaint bag of laughs was quickly abused. Sitcoms in the ’60s and ’70s took the laff box and cranked it to eleven. Realizing canned chuckles freed them from the burden of a live audience, shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch ratcheted the laugh track to egregious levels. No show could escape the canned laughter craze — beloved programs like The Muppet Show and M*A*S*H used laugh tracking, even during outdoor scenes, when a studio audience was improbable. When animated shows like The Flintstones and The Jetsons added tracks of artificial mirth, the entire illusion of a captive studio audience was finally shattered.

Show creators hated the laugh track, spurring a constant feud with network executives who believed audiences enjoyed the audio cues. To adjudicate the conflict, CBS held a controlled experiment in 1965 with its brand-new show Hogan’s Heroes. The network tested two versions of the World War II comedy — one with canned laughter, one without. The test audiences overwhelmingly preferred the laugh-tracked show. Since then, nearly all CBS comedies have contained audience laughter.

Fake laughter was far from universal though. Many beloved shows, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Cheers, and Seinfeld, used studio audiences for most of their laughter, only adding dashes of the canned stuff through sweetening (that’s the term of art).1

But laughter of all kinds — live or tracked — was becoming the joke of the sitcom industry, as a morose aura started to envelop the merriment. An oft-told anecdote asserted that due to track age, the laff box contained the chortles of dead people. The canard seems to have originated with Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999), who ad libbed this bit of dialogue about sitcoms like Taxi:

It’s just stupid jokes and canned laughter! And you don’t know why it’s there, but it’s there! And it’s dead people laughing, did you know that? Those people are dead!1

It might have been true in the ’70s, but the claim is likely not accurate today, as audio engineers are known to assiduously update their libraries with new snorts and snickers.

Regardless, the stench of dead laughter was in the air. Starting in the early aughts, shows began to jettison the laugh track, as most celebrated comedies of the era — The Office, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Orange Is the New Black, 30 Rock, Community, Louie, Modern Family — abandoned the cheesy blandishment. Some programs maintain laugh tracks today (especially those on CBS), and they do tend to get good ratings. In fact, one can almost divide sitcoms into two categories — “critically acclaimed” versus “high ratings” — on whether they use a laugh track. As a generalization, shows that cozen a laugh from the viewer perform better in the ratings but seldom win Emmys.

Although widely derided, the laugh track served its purpose. Television began as a medium for viewing live events with an audience (essentially theater-at-a-distance), and it took decades for television to evolve into its own medium. The laff box allowed producers to literally play the audience, like an organ. Perhaps it was synthetic, but the technical innovation put the audience into the tube, creating a more communal experience in our homes. Today, that role — incorporating a disembodied audience — is played by social media. LOL.

If you’re interested in reading about more simulations, skullduggery, and flimflam, The Encyclopedia Of Misinformation is now available on Amazon.

  1. Sweetening is demonstrated with dismay in Annie Hall when Woody Allen witnesses laugh tracks being added to a live broadcast in a Los Angeles television studio. The term is also invoked in other commercial arts. When Kiss’s Alive! was released in 1975, it claimed to be a live album but many tracks were clearly sweetened, as they say, with studio overdubs to sharpen the sound.

  2. Another oft-cited (but inaccurate) source for this old saw is Chuck Palahniuk’s 2002 novel Lullaby: “Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.”

Being Serena

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2018

Being Serena is a five-art HBO documentary series on Serena Williams that focuses on her pregnancy, the birth of her daughter, and her determination to get back on the court and compete at a championship level.

I don’t know if there’s anything left for me in tennis, but I’m not done yet.

The first episode will air on May 2. Deadline has further details.

Hip Hop All Stars on The Arsenio Hall Show

posted by Aaron Cohen   Mar 22, 2018

For the final show of The Arsenio Hall Show, Queen Latifah organized a huge amount of hip hop talent for a tribute. It’s amazing. Some more details here. The segment features Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens, CL Smooth, Guru from Gang Starr, Das EFX, GZA and few others from Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, and Mad Lion, and, as mentioned previously, is amazing. (via @mattwhitlockPM)

The trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2018

Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers will be out in theaters on June 8; the trailer above just dropped today.

Fred Rogers led a singular life. He was a puppeteer. A minister. A musician. An educator. A father, a husband, and a neighbor. Fred Rogers spent 50 years on children’s television beseeching us to love and to allow ourselves to be loved. With television as his pulpit, he helped transform the very concept of childhood. He used puppets and play to explore the most complicated issues of the day — race, disability, equality and tragedy. He spoke directly to children and they responded by forging a lifelong bond with him-by the millions. And yet today his impact is unclear. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? explores the question of whether or not we have lived up to Fred’s ideal. Are we all good neighbors?

You can watch a clip of the film here.

A surgery resident analyzes medical scenes from TV & movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

Annie Onishi is a general surgery resident at Columbia University and Wired asked her to break down scenes from movies and TV shows featuring emergency rooms, operating rooms, and other medical incidents. Spoiler alert: if you seek medical treatment from a TV doctor, you will probably die. Secondary spoiler alert: that adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart scene in Pulp Fiction is not as implausible as you might think, even if some of the details are wrong.